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Conversations with my dad: Cats

Choux-choux interrupts my dad while he reads (Picture from: Lydia Straka)

My dad and I are both cat people.

At times, it’s difficult to finish a sentence beginning that way—“my dad and I are both…”—with an actual preference, rather than a matter of circumstance. When faced with most topics, it seems like we have similar thought patterns yet end up with sparring opinions. It’s nearly impossible for our shared sentiment of “Cats are just so cute and funny” to logically lead to “I don’t like cats,” though. Our verdict brings us together.

When it feels like there’s nothing to talk about, I bring up cats. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve filled the silent air of a mundane car ride with the question “So, how are the cats?” It’s almost like asking about my dad’s children. Just as a proud mother would, his demeanor softens and his responses range from a simple, “Oh, they’re doing well,” to a full story about a cat-related incident or an update on their social ladder (apparently Boo—full name Boodoo Hoodoo—has replaced Bongo as the alpha male). I’m not just teasing him when I call him a cat parent, he truly acts that way. Recently, my dad called out “kids?” and my sister and I responded “yes?” only to learn that he was calling for the cats, not his actual children.

I’m not the only one who reverts to the topic as sacred common ground, though. I have picked up phone calls from him, assuming that something pertinent has come up, only to be met with a funny cat story. I once got a full voicemail recounting how the youngest of the four places toys in the middle of the room, walks away, then stalks and attacks them as if he’s been caught off guard by a stuffed bird. When eating dinner, my dad similarly fills silence by commenting on one of the cats asleep on the table next to us. He’s one of the few people who will wholeheartedly and attentively listen to stories about my cat, Ginger, who I consider to be my child.

One dull evening this summer, we sat in the living room without much to say. Almost instinctively, I heard myself asking “how many cats have you had throughout your life?” Despite his grumbles that he really couldn’t recall, I insisted that my dad mentally walk through his pet ownership past and figure it out with me. I protested that it’s a disgrace to not have an ongoing mental tally if he has had as many cats as his sporadic stories have led me to believe. The task was complete with ground rules to keep the mission from getting too out of hand, such as deciding that we wouldn’t count family pets from his childhood.

As early as the second cat, I decided I’d take notes. It was partially a joke, a way to both tease his life-long feline obsession and parody my diligence. But, also, a part of me really cared to make a record. It turns out cats correlate pretty well to milestones in my dad’s life. For instance, not only was Suki his first cat, but he had to give her to his parents—caring for another creature doesn’t fit well with a nomadic college lifestyle, it turns out. Jasmine, on the other hand, got lugged all the way from Cleveland to New Orleans (little did my dad know that when his car broke down here, he’d never leave). Electra? As my notes put it, “Electra: loooved dad, peed on mom.”

Our study concluded that he has had 16 cats. He currently has four. My dad owns a quarter of the cats he has ever owned. What a discovery. If it wasn’t for that one subject that we can always relate through, I don’t know if I would have found a topic of conversation that so naturally led to my dad recounting his life story.

One of my dad’s favorite movies, Big Fish, includes the line “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the story.” When it comes to my dad and me, in telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate father from feline, the man from the cat.

Lydia Straka is a New Orleans native who has recently completed her freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis. Though still juggling possibilities for her future, she loves to write and cares deeply about social justice and women’s rights. Lydia can be contacted at lydia@nolavie.com.